How to Be a Better Counselor
Maintain balance and avoid burnout as a counselor.
For obvious reasons, the field of counseling has a high rate of burnout. “It can be emotionally exhausting to sit and listen to people’s traumas all day long,” explains Elizabeth Katz, associate professor of Counseling and director of the Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. But by taking care of themselves and following best practices in their work with clients, therapists can avoid bringing home their clients’ problems — which can mean the difference between practicing for a few years and having a long and rewarding career. Here, experts offer tips on how counselors can take of themselves.
The best way to avoid burnout is to be aware it’s a possibility, Katz says. Don’t wait until you’re exhausted by your work to take a break. Even in practicum courses, student counselors can get into a habit of putting others’ needs ahead of their own, which can lead quickly to being overwhelmed.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t feel well,’ or ‘I’m tired or sick,’ or ‘I’m exhausted — but this client needs me.’ There’s a natural urge to help others and to put oneself lower in importance,” Katz says. “It’s a risk for all counselors.”
“Many people come into therapy because they’ve had horrific experiences or devastating losses,” says Sunny Lansdale, a full-time faculty member and psychotherapist who teaches a course on trauma in the St. Edward’s MAC program. “And the therapist’s nervous system, and his or her psyche, is going to be affected by hearing the stories recounted to them, which sometimes are very hard to listen to.” Lansdale recommends that counselors maintain a therapist of their own to be a better therapist for other people.
To avoid secondary trauma from hearing about clients’ traumas, counselors need to employ both empathy and compassion during a session. Empathy is the capacity to feel very close to what a client feels so the client is not alone in re-experiencing what he or she has been through. But feeling all of that pain leaves the therapist vulnerable.
“The metaphor that I use with my students is that if a man is drowning in the river and you jump in the river to save him, you’re both being caught by the flow of the river. You both can drown,” Lansdale says. She advises students to balance empathy with compassion, which comes from the cognitive part of the brain, where the counselor’s knowledge of clinical theory lives.
“Metaphorically, that’s like you put one foot in the river to let the client know you understand,” Lansdale says, “but you keep one foot on the bank — in your clinical understanding — so you can help them find access to the bank themselves.
“The reason the role of therapist is a tough one is you have to hold both of those places – and that’s not necessarily an automatic skill,” she adds. “It’s a skill that you learn by going through a counseling program.”
The Master of Arts in Counseling at St. Edward’s University helps students gain a deeper understanding of what drives peoples’ behavior through an experiential curriculum, accomplished faculty and innovative electives.
Robyn Ross is a freelance writer.